Developing the Research Question for a Thesis, Dissertation, or Doctoral Project Study

Categories: Instruction, Research, Research Design, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles

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MethodSpace will explore phases of the research process throughout 2021. In the first quarter will explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. Find the unfolding series here.

Dr. Gary Burkholder is a co-author of Research Design and Methods: An Applied Guide for the Scholar-Practitioner. Dr. Burkholder was a Mentor in Residence on SAGE MethodSpace in December 2019, and is a regular contributor. See his practical advice for research faculty and students here.


Contrary to what you may think or have heard, creating a suitable research question to guide a thesis, dissertation, or doctoral project study does not necessarily follow a linear process. However, this does not mean that getting to the research question is not rigorous! There are clear steps to get to the research question (see Crawford, Burkholder, & Cox, 2020).

  • Generate the initial idea.
  • Complete a thorough investigation of the literature in the relevant domains.
  • For those pursuing the research doctorate, identify gaps in theory and empirical knowledge that result in a research problem and purpose statement.
  • For those pursuing the applied doctorate, draw upon expertise to identify gaps in practice that allow the development of the practice-based problem and purpose statement.
  • Identify the principal research questions from the problem and purpose statements.

Generating the Initial Idea. This is arguably the most creative part of the process and generates the initial enthusiasm in engaging in formal research. Most of the time, whether theoretical or practical, students get an idea because of something that sparks their interest. Someone having a personal experience with obesity and subsequent weight loss and have an interest in learning more about why particular weight loss programs seem to work. In professional settings, the practitioner may notice that a process or activity isn’t working correctly. For example, children in school may not be adapting to online learning as quickly as they should. In a company setting, a middle manager may be surprised that employees are not adapting to working remotely as quickly as they had thought. In a healthcare setting, a nurse notices that patients are taking too much time completing forms in the clinical practice office and that there may be other more efficient ways to complete this activity that would result in less waiting time. Whatever the source, consider these observations as initial “hunches” that might lead to an interesting research study that can allow you to contribute to theory or practice in a way that suits your own expertise.

Reviewing the Literature.  The purpose of original research is to address a lack of knowledge in theory or practice. Therefore, once you have your initial idea, the next step is to take a look at the literature that addresses the topic of your idea. There is a vast selection of journals in all disciplines, both theoretical and practice-oriented, that provide excellent resources for your investigation. The goal for now is to read enough literature to establish that this is an important topic for further exploration and to see if anyone has written about it. Has research already been completed that provides ways to address your initial idea? If yes, then the study probably won’t be worthy of doctoral level research (although you may actually find the answers to issues in the workplace that you are looking for!). Whether you are trying to solve a problem in practice or theory, reviewing the existing literature is important to see what others have already done. Remember, the goal of doctoral level scholarship is to add to the existing body of knowledge regarding theory or practice. At this stage, if you find sufficient literature to help you address your initial question, then it is time to put that idea aside and pursue others that may yield a more innovative contribution.

Developing the Problem in Research or Practice. The problem statement is probably the most important part of the doctoral capstone. In your problem statement, you succinctly identify what is currently know about the area of interest and what is not known. It is what is NOT known that identifies your unique contribution to scholarship in theory or practice. If you cannot identify what is not known, or what is commonly referred to as the gap in theory or the gap in practice, then you probably don’t have a study worthy of doctoral level scholarship. Once you identify the gap in theory or practice, you can then develop the statement of purpose that defines for the reader exactly what your study will add to the existing body of scholarship and/or practice.

The Research Question.  Once you have identified the practice or theory-based problem, you are then ready to propose the formal research question that guides your study. This is a succinct question that provides focus, describes the scope of the study, and provides insight into the direction of inquiry. There are important ideas to remember when crafting the research question.

  • All studies are guided by one or more research questions, regardless of whether they are quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods.
  • Fewer research questions are better than many. In most cases, studies are addressing one primary research question (and likely never more than 2 or 3). The research question provides focus of the study. The more research questions, the more unfocused the study may become.
  • For those doing qualitative studies or studies with qualitative components, do not confuse the research question with interview questions. There will likely be several interview questions, but interview questions are in service to addressing the key research question guiding the overall study.
  • In general, questions should not be framed as “yes or no”. For example, “What is the extent of understanding teachers have regarding training first graders to use tablets in acquiring knowledge?” is better than “Do teachers know how to train first graders to use tablets in acquiring knowledge?” The former is worded in a way that supports depth and breadth of observation and analysis.
  • Research questions must be aligned with other aspects of the thesis, dissertation, or project study proposal, such as the problem statement, research design, and analysis strategy.

To summarize:  Idea >Reviewing literature > Identifying the gap in theory or practice >Problem and Purpose Statements >Research question

Thus, there is a clear process for getting to the research question. However, there is fluidity in terms of how that process unfolds. Ideas, when explored further, may turn out to be just that and have to be scrapped for a different idea that can be pursued. Ideas can come from intuitive hunches or from extensive exploration and knowledge of a particular theory or practice. They may emerge from conversations with mentors or other experts in the field. This dance of ideas creates the initial sparks of excitement in social science research that leads to a rigorous and scientific process of generating the research question ultimately guiding the study.

Research Design and Methods

Crawford, L. M., Burkholder, G. J., & Cox, K. (2020). Writing the research proposal. In G. J. Burkholder, K. A. Cox, L. M. Crawford, & J. H. Hitchcock (Eds.), Research Design and Methods: An Applied Guide for the Scholar-Practitioner (pp. 309-334). SAGE Publications. 


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